Life, etc

‘The Pervert Laura’: Nothing like a good wank in public

By Marianne Thamm 10 May 2015

In a country and an industry desperate for new, young and talented voices, the prolific and provocative playwright Louis Viljoen is being hailed as theatre’s new ‘it guy’; well, at least in Cape Town. The Fugard Theatre has snapped up his latest literary offering, ‘The Pervert Laura’, billed as “a dark psychological drama”. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Look, there’s nothing like a good wank on stage to get the theatre-going middle classes really excited. A good wank, loads of everyday profanities – you know, the usual “fuck yous” and “motherfuckers” – all topped off with artisanal, lovingly crafted verbal conjurings of gruesome abuse and violence.

Even better if it is all superbly framed and contained on a minimalist, beautifully lit stage with carefully placed items of retro furniture and crisp bedding.

Before we press on, and just in case you think I might be using the world ‘wank’ gratuitously (which I am, of course), actress Emily Child, who plays the Laura of the title, does actually masturbate on stage in this production so back off… (I pray for the day a writer will require a male actor to beat his meat in public this way but alas…)

The point about violence and abuse is that all of that nasty stuff is just so much more palatable when you package it just so. That’s why theatre and cinema are great spaces for writers and authors to unleash all that pent-up rage which is one of the unexpected side-effects (the other is genteel poverty of course) of the often closeted and quiet life the profession requires, nay, demands.

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Photo: Emily Child as Laura and Sarah Potter as her sister. (Jesse Kramer)

And of course, we, the theatre-going audiences – no, not you who live in Manenberg with the constant threat of death by a stray bullet fired in a gang war – also find a measure of relief from our anxieties and neuroses in this contained space. In that sense then, theatre can be a form of group therapy. And in Viljoen’s case, often shock therapy.

Just to clarify things here. I really like some of Louis Viljoen’s writing. He’s clever, he’s interesting, rude, rebellious, quirky, fearless, prolific and not forgetting that he is also dazzlingly articulate – for an angry, young white man, that is. Usually they just resort to heavy weapons.

Viljoen is an uncompromising writer (sort of Berkoff meets Shakespeare), which is why I like but do not necessarily enjoy his work. Including this play, I have seen three of Viljoen’s other works – the award-winning and hilarious Champ and the political satire, The Kingmakers. His other works, which have all been “acclaimed” – as we are wont to say in the theatre world – by local critics are The Bile Boys, The Verbalists and The Frontiersmen. Viljoen has picked up a string of awards in the process and also a sort of cult following. He’s the kind of playwright, they say, you either totally love and get or totally hate. I’m not so sure.

In The Pervert Laura, Viljoen attempts to map the internal landscape of Laura, a tortured and abused woman who wields her tongue like a weapon. Viljoen is, of course, to be congratulated for attempting to tackle such a subject so fearlessly on stage.

I’ll lift Viljoen’s notes from the programme rather than explain it myself: “There is a thing that lives in the heart of this production that is both represented and obscured by the curtain. The curtain separates the audience from the stage, the scenes from each other, and the satisfaction from the climaxes.”

He adds that the play “exists in memory and there are times that no matter how hard one attempts to reconstruct a moment from the past, the only result is obscurity and a grey haze”.

Viljoen, who also directs, has assembled a really heavyweight cast including Terry Norton (as Laura’s therapist), Nicholas Pauling (as a casual fuck), Sarah Glass Potter (as her mumsy sister) and the decidedly spectacular Guy de Lancey (as her psychopathic father).

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Photo: Emily Child with Guy de Lancey. (Jesse Kramer)

But here’s the thing – and it is my general criticism with regard to all of Viljoen’s work that I have seen. Many, if not all of his characters, all sound like Viljoen. And yes, as a playwright he has a gifted right hook when it comes to shaping, playing with and imposing himself and his thoughts on the English language. But he does the same with his characters, seldom allowing them any differentiation or room to breath or become themselves. There is an awful lot of telling and too little showing, too little emotional traction for me, at least, to care about any of them.

They howl and fight and cuss and curse in front of me, but do I care? Am I moved? Am I shocked? No. I am too busy listening to the lovely language, looking at the brilliant acting, gliding my eyes over the beautiful set and lighting.

If an army from ISIS burst into the theatre and kidnapped everyone on stage I wouldn’t really care. In fact I would be thrilled for them all as I suspect they would probably secretly enjoy it.

The Pervert Laura suffers from too much artifice and embellishment, too much clever-clever to really rip out and pummel my cynical and shrivelled old soul.

Viljoen has suggested that some have said his plays are “too masculine”…and, well, I would have to agree. His Laura is a man’s version of an abused woman – and a young man’s version at that.

Viljoen, for this reviewer at least, lacks one thing… an emotional maturity that would render his excellent work far more relevant and shattering, far less surface and much more of a mental depth-charge. Perhaps his writing will mature with age and he will stop trying to dominate and fuck his characters with his language. While we do not ask that he stop being angry and pissed off and swaggering on stage, we do ask that he take off his own intellectual armour.

That said, go and see it for yourself, if only for this really, really fabulous cast who are like a bunch of cobras dancing out of a wicker basket. It’s on at the Fugard until 23 May. DM

Photo: Emily Child as Laura and Sarah Potter as her sister. (Jesse Kramer)

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